In 1983, Philip Glass completed his “Portrait Trilogy” (“Einstein on the Beach,” “Satyagraha”) with “Akhnaten,” a lyrical opera about the progenitor of one of the world’s oldest monotheistic systems of beliefs, Atenism. The U.S. premiere was sleekly minimal and decidedly arty. Three decades on, Glass sits atop the small pantheon of contemporary composers who enjoy popular success.
The Los Angeles Opera’s splashy new production of “Akhnaten,” a co-production with English National Opera, where I saw it earlier this year, shows how what was once considered an avant-garde novelty has entered the ranks of modern classics. Contemporary operas rarely get performed past their premieres, but “Akhnaten” has been seen in over 40 different productions over the past 33 years. Phelim McDermott’s colorful production was at times a bit too Cirque du Soleil for my taste (juggling played a crucial role), but it shows how thoroughly the opera-going public has embraced this three-hour-long minimalist masterpiece performed in dead languages including Biblical Hebrew and Akkadian.